May 2008

Paint a picture: Just keep it simple

By Gregory Hale, InTech, Editor

A painting hangs on the wall at the art museum, and small groups of twos and threes stand around it musing about the beauty of the simple pastoral scene. Some offer their thoughts on the meaning behind it. Thoughts vary from saying the look of the scene and the color palate selected obviously show the artist was in his blue period to saying the painting represented man's inhumanity to man.

After taking one look at the painting, it is easy to point out it is just a beautiful scene: Let's not over think the meaning too much.

Isn't that a problem today throughout the automation industry? Over thinking?

If you listen to Gordon Bethune, former chief executive and chairman of Continental Airlines, you could very easily walk away with that impression.

Not long ago the airline was on the verge of shutting its doors. It was last in seemingly every measureable category for choosing an airline. It was losing money fast.

"When I started working for Continental, the board came to me and asked me what the company should do," Bethune said during his keynote address at Yokogawa's Technology Fair and 2008 User Conference in Houston last month. "I came up with a plan."

When he took over, managers at the airline just thought about managing the company, and employees did not think about being the best, but rather, just coming in and punching the clock. There was no feeling of "we are in this together."

"We decided to write a business plan that had four parts. It was called the Go Forward Plan. The four parts centered on product, financial, people, and product integrity," he said.

The company had to figure out what its strengths were and also what its customers wanted. He just wanted to keep it simple.

"What do passengers want?" Bethune asked. "They want to get safely from point A to point B on time with their underwear. We had to get to the top of the reliability charts."

Just as important, Continental's workers, from the luggage handlers to the executives, had to enjoy coming to work every day.

"You need to invest in employees to get the needed results in the workplace. Treat employees with dignity and respect."

In short, Bethune and the airline went from last to first in a short time.

Surely the entire turnaround was not easy. Were there egos flying around the headquarters? Yes. Did everyone know what would happen if they did not all work together and actually listen and learn from one another? Yes, they did. That is why the plan worked so well. Everyone had a job to do, but they did not take that "it's not my job attitude" that permeates the industry. They kept it simple.

Making your organization a stronger, more vibrant business does not have to be complicated. The managers do not have to sit behind their desks and pontificate about the future, pretending they know all the answers. Rather, they should communicate and listen to one another and to the workers. Talking and communicating leads to solid plans where everyone is onboard. Just keep it simple.

Talk to me: ghale@isa.org or (919) 990-9275